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Consumers vs Customers: Hope for RNWK?

Major changing of the guard today as @robglaser, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of RealNetworks, announced his stepping down from the chief executive role.

I joined ProgressiveNetworks (Real's earlier name before it went IPO) in 1997, and had an opportunity to work on some really cool projects like RealPlayer 5.0, and to work with some wonderful, bright people many of whom have gone onto interesting careers including now-US Senator Maria Cantwell, SecondLife founder Philip Rosedale, HelpHive co-founder Karim Meghji, and many others.

What I find interesting in the memorandum Rob sent today to Real's employees and to his Facebook friends is the repeated use of the word "consumers" and the lack of the word "customers". From his memo (emphasis mine):

. . . deep appreciation for the billions (yes, billions!) of consumers that use or have used our products, the hundreds of millions of consumers that use our products every year, and the tens of millions of consumers that use our products and services every month. I am also grateful for the trust placed in us by our fantastic carrier and other distribution partners. Very few companies get to have the global reach and impact that we do.

And then later in his memo he identifies the new interim CEO as Robert Kimball, whose own companywide memo doesn't mention consumers at all, but does mention customers. From his memo (also available at the PaidContent.org link provided above):

The Board has asked me to assume Rob’s executive responsibilities and has appointed me President and acting CEO. The Board of Directors will consider candidates for the permanent CEO role in the coming months. The senior executive team is galvanized and committed to making RealNetworks a company where customers love our products, employees are excited about being here, and we create value for our shareholders. We want RealNetworks to be a more focused, faster growing and profitable company. We are going to simplify the way we do business, empower employees to do their jobs, and hold people accountable for their results. I look forward to working with all of you to transform RealNetworks as part of this next chapter.

Now, some, including Rob, may say I'm being a nitpicker and that this is a silly distinction. But for me personally it isn't, and it actually brings back into fresh recollection the core reason why I quit RealNetworks relatively shortly after I joined the company. What I found at Real was an emphasis on eyeballs. Everything was eyeballs this, eyeballs that. How many eyeballs have seen the RealPlayer, how many eyeballs are gonna see this or that ad, and so on. Everything was about nameless consumers and eyeballs -- I never heard the word "customer". There was never a vibe in the company about winning the hearts and minds of customers. The kind of thing you know that companies like Apple live for today.

Looking back, one could say Real was a very web 1.0 organization at the time -- most web companies were, of course! But at Real the notion was broadcasting and the masses out there were, as the TV industry calls 'em, "viewers" and the radio industry calls 'em "listeners". The broadcast industry never called 'em customers. Sure, Real cared about their users, but I never felt that the millions of people who visited the Real.com site or who used Real's products were considered as customers. I just never heard that word. And it rubbed me the wrong way. I had come from a different world, from years running a startup company of my own where it was a joy and a thrill each time a new customer signed up or made a purchase, and it was possible in those days to even pay house-calls to local customers as a way to not only get to know them but more importantly learn what they liked, disliked, needed, and didn't need in terms of the company and its products and services. With RealNetworks, in my rather short tenure there, I didn't get that vibe. Things were too rushed, too large a scale, and the emphasis was simply on how many millions of eyeballs were seeing Real's (or Real's advertisers') pixels on the screen at any given moment. So I left. They weren't happy, and years later I got a serious stink-eye stare from Maria Cantwell when I saw her at a PC Forum event (Maria headed up the division I worked in at the company), but I had to move on.

And so, all these years later, seeing Rob (who I respect very much and think is a brilliant guy, and I look forward to seeing what he's going to do next) still talking "consumers" and not "customers" carries a modicum of significance for me.

And based on a modicum of change in messaging from the new guy, Rob Kimball, I would say I am encouraged for RealNetworks' future prospects because of his use of that single word: "customer". Time to load up on RNWK? Could be!

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